Written by Alyssa Schwartz

If you’ve ever taken a trip to Paris and wished your grade-school French was up to the task of navigating exchanges with the locals, then Speax was built with you in mind.

“It’s a common issue with learning languages,” says Speax’s founder Beverley Biggar. “People can’t actually speak them.”

Biggar would know. With a background in language education, including a Masters degree from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at University of Toronto where she focused her thesis on French as second education learning, Biggar found that from grade school to language apps, most teaching techniques don’t conform to how people pick up new tongues.

“People always say they can’t learn to speak a language,” she says. “But they already speak one language. It’s not the individual, it’s the method.”

Called the grammar translation method, most curricula focus on learning the mechanics of language first – for example, verb conjugation – and on using it second. “It comes from the print era,” she says. “But really you need to use the language first and then study. That’s how one learns their first language. They don’t read first; babies listen to a lot of sounds and activity around them and then they start to interact from there.”

With Speax, Biggar’s app, users are able to learn more naturally, immersing themselves in an AI-based simulation of everyday tourist scenarios, such as checking into a hotel, seeing the sites or ordering lunch in a café, using a gamified mobile app. By taking risks and expanding their usage through the levels, users can advance beyond the core game to live like a local.

“Unlike our competitors, we don’t start with reading first. There’s no long lists of vocabulary you have to memorize or studying the verb etre. It’s really all about using the language,” she says.

While the principle behind Speax may seem intuitive, for Biggar, who had no technical background, building an interdisciplinary team that involved a speech technologist, language learning experts, software developers, sound and narrative designers and video game developers proved to be more complex than she ever could have imagined. “I’ve developed really comprehensive learning programs for many years, but the challenges of technology were a complete surprise,” she says.

Nearly five years after Speax earned its first funding – a technical problem solving grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence – and countless ongoing rounds of user testing since, it finally hits the iOS app store in February, just in time to celebrate Canada’s 50th anniversary as a bilingual country.

And between the educational expertise, tech and gaming talent and diversity available, Biggar says Toronto had a special constellation of attributes to make the city the right launchpad. The next step is moving beyond – both beyond Canadian borders and beyond the French language. 

While Biggar is currently focused on raising more funding, Speax will launch globally in the fall. Versions in Spanish, Mandarin and English for non-native speakers are next. “It’s well-known that Canada is recognized internationally for our contribution to language learning. But it’s time we bridge the gap between the research and the commercial products that are available to consumers.”

Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real